Two weeks ago, I reported on the opening of Bryan Garner’s exhibition Taming the Tongue at the Grolier Club in New York. The video of the event is now available online. So if you wish to know more about this amazing exhibition, you will be able to watch it here.
But the website includes a whole lot more, such as the exhibition’s online tour and many other very interesting Grolier Club events.
Two of my colleagues at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics are working on the collocation of dat “that” and als “if” in sentences like Hij dacht dat als hij drukte, het luikje open zou gaan (“He thought that if he pushed, the trap would open”). In Dutch, the combination of two conjunctions is considered unacceptable, and writing manuals brand its use as a stylistic error.
The question was put to me whether this was also a usage problem in English, even though the construction is apparently regularly used. An English example they gave is the following:
De Saussure was so determined to have the mountain conquered that if he was not to be the one to do so, someone else should […]
Doing a full-text search in the HUGE database produced many similar examples, so this that if construction seems quite acceptable. But I promised to consult the readers of this blog, so my question is whether this sentence is considered problematical at all, and if so, in what variety of English.
If Dutch and English do indeed appear to take different stands on the acceptability of the construction, I would be interested in finding out why this would be the case. And also, whether the construction is considered fine (or not) in other languages than English or Dutch.
Like my colleagues, I’d be very interested in hearing what you think!
For all those interested in the relationship between usage, usage guides and linguistic norms, this book has just come out. With warmest thanks to the editors Luisella Caon, Marion Elenbaas and Janet Grijzenhout, as well as to all contributing authors: Marina Dossena, Raymond Hickey, Wim van der Wurff, Dick Smakman, Terttu Nevalainen, Carol Percy, Marijke van der Wal, Thijs Porck, Andreas Krogull, Gijsbert Rutten, Wim Tigges, Joan Beal and David Crystal.
We all know Bryan Garner as the author of Garner’s Modern American (now English) Usage (4th ed. 2016), but not everyone may be aware of the fact that he is also a collector of 18th and 19th-century books, grammars as well as dictionaries. And not only of books, but also of letters and other original documents from the period. Last night (midnight in this part of the world) was the opening of an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York called Taming the Tongue, celebrating his great collection.
The opening was – obviously – an online event, attended by a large number of people from the US and elsewhere, and we were given an overview of the selected books and other documents from Bryan Garner’s truly amazing collection, which comrpises as many as 38,000 items. The exhibition is also open online, and it takes you through the collection in a topical manner, ranging from Swift’s attempts at establishing an English academy, through the Lowth and the Murray years, to the early 1850s.
Bryan was asked for his most spectacular find (cliffhanger: watch the vimeo of the opening if you want to hear about it!), but my favourite, apart of course from the sections on Lowth’s grammar and the letter addressed to Robert Dodsley, would have been a first edition of Robert Baker’s Remarks on the English Language (1770), the first usage guide ever to have been published. I had no idea that the book would still be around.
There is a wonderful book accompanying the exhibition, filled to the brim with illustrations, called Taming the Tongue: In the Heyday of English Grammar (1711-1851). It is a must-have for anyone interested in the subject (I know, because Bryan kindly sent me a copy earlier this year), and despite its rich contents, very affordably priced.
For a paper I’m planning to write on the breaking of prescriptive rules by literary authors for characterisation purposes, I’m looking for specific examples of the breaking of the who/whom rule. I have several examples of them already, and have occasionally posted them on this blog. But more would be very welcome!
Also, I’d be interested in your thoughts about why Martin Amis, in his recent book Inside Story (2020) bothers to explain the rule for the use of who and whom. In a novel, as well. Why would he have done so? Any suggestions from people who’ve read his book already?
My reading of the last book of John Le Carré’s Karla trilogy, featuring George Smiley, Smiley’s People (1979), produced two more prescriptive comments. (There may have been more, but these caught my attention, possibly because both are in the HUGE database.)
The first is about the usage problem -ic/-ical, a topic dealt with by Robin Straaijer in an article from 2018. There are different preferences for either form between British and American English, as indeed seems to be the issue that is at play in the book:
“Yes, sir, ‘an extinct case of purely historic consern’, sir,” Strickland went on, into the telephone. […] “And Oliver Lacon proposes to have it included word for word in the D-Notice. Am I on target there, Oliver?”
“Historical,” Lacon corrected him irritably. “Not historic concern. That’s the last thing we want! Historical.” (p. 44)
From the context it appears that Strickland is talking on the telephone to Saul Enderby, the Circus’s new head after the uncovery of Bill Haydon as a double agent in the previous book, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (1974). “Not your style, I grant you,” Lacon continues, talking to Smiley, “why should he be? He’s and Atlantic man.” An Atlantic man showing preference for American grammar, it appears, may not have been Smiley’s style either.
“… Down here, please, sir, that’s the way! Walking normal still, please note,” the Superintendent had added, making a rare slip of grammar in his distraction. (p. 82)
Since the Superintendent is here addressing Smiley, we seem to have some interior monologue here. Adding up to that instance in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy it looks as if we can add a strict view on linguistic correctness to the way Smiley is depicted. I have two more Smiley novels to go, The Secret Pilgrim (1990) and A Legacy of Spies (2017).
Eighteen months or so ago I wrote a post about John le Carré, because I’d discovered that, like Kingsley Amis, Len Deighton and Ian McEwan, he too writes metalinguistic usage comments in his novels. My post then was about a comment on who/whom, this time the comment is about the use of got without have, which le Carré attributes to American usage. The quotation is from Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (1974):
‘I won’t be quoted, George,’ the Minister warned in his lounging drawl. ‘No minutes, no packdrill. I got voters to deal with. You don’t. Nor does Oliver Lacon, do you, Oliver?’
He had also, thought Smiley, the American violence with auxiliary verbs: ‘Yes, I’m sorry about that,’ he said (p. 254).
Is Smiley presented here as a prescriptivist? Note the double entendre in the second part of the quotation. I’m reading all the Smiley novels in their proper order this year, so who knows what else I will find.
My book, Describing Prescriptivism, has been out for nearly a year now, but I still run into references to usage guides in the literary literature I read that are too good not to make a note of. Or reread, as in the case of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2006), which I first read well before the Bridging the Unbridegable project set off.
The reference is to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (p. 146), and the character discussed is said to have written “a colossal, almost painfully detailed biograpny”. The only biography of Fowler I’m familiar with is the one by Jenny Mc Morris, called The Warden of English (2001). It is neither colossal nor painfully detailed, just an excellent book and a really good read to boot. So why the negative qualification? Is it Fowler’s reputation as a stickler for correctness that Smith is – unduly, in my opinion – drawing on?
The Bridging the Unbridgeable project may be officially closed, publications by its members continue to appear. Just now, my copy of Language Prescription: Values, Ideologies and Identity landed on our doormat, edited by Don Chapman and Jacob Rawlins. It includes papers by two of our former project members, Viktorija Kostadinova and Carmen Ebner. Congratulations to all!
You will find all the project’s publications here.